The late ‘40s and ‘50s were the grass roots times for a bunch of
guys to get together and form some kind of club with the focus directed
towards the automobile. The goal was to find a clubhouse, preferably a
large garage, where the members could work on their hot rods. In 1956 the
club in Allentown was formed and was called the Piston Pushers. They found
a 12 car garage two blocks from center square. From the outside, it
appeared to be a solid brick building. But inside you could see it had
been converted from a barn. The corner stone said 1873.
I became a member in the summer of 1959, along with Karl and Tom. We
all had plans to build a hot rod that you could drive around town and also
race at the tracks known as Drag Strips. Our club had many different
members over the years. The members came and went, usually leaving after
the wedding ceremonies and children arrived. Dues were collected and the
rent was paid. We also tried to have a surplus of funds to buy equipment
that all the members could use to build their dreams.
Every function of the club used the democratic system of voting. The
new members were all admitted this way and deciding who would get a spot
for building his car was voted on also. Back then, not everyone had spare
money to build a car, but just by being involved helped the members hang
with those who could. Now you can well imagine that getting 25 or 30 guys
together would result in some hellish conditions. Like I said, the
building was old, and probably was a barn when it was built. It also had a
functioning out house inside the building. How the city missed shutting
that little gem down was beyond us, but it came in handy, if you were real
brave and not faint of heart.
The least desirable spot to have your car was close to the walls
covering the toilet. It actually looked like and old fashioned outhouse,
all wood with a door on it. Needless to say, the thing was probably not
cleaned out for many, many years. Whoever wound up next to it got a
reduction in dues. The odor coming from that walled in pit of hell was
nothing short of amazing. Some of us would tape all the seams closed to
help eliminate the smell. But someone always seemed to have an emergency,
and would use it from time to time.
Now this little relic from the past became a major point of amusement
to the whole club. New members were always introduced to the monster pit.
Believe me, you needed to be exceptionally brave to enter its domain. So
we got our heads together to come up with a real unusual game plan to see
who was the bravest of the brave. Just down the street was a little steak
sandwich shop called Vince's. We all got to know the owner from buying our
refreshments from him every night. At one of the weekly meetings, it was
decided to use the toilet as a challenge to new club members.
Here was the deal. The club would buy a steak sandwich from Vince's. If
you could eat it inside those walls of terror, all the other member's
would buy that person his refreshments for the following week. Challenge
after challenge was offered, but no one would take it on. That is until a
new fellow joined the club. His name was John Locker, and his nickname was
Leech. The challenge was offered, and without a blink of an eye, old John
entered the outhouse, sat down with the sandwich, closed the door, and ate
his steak. For years and years he never bought anything for himself. He
became an example to all the new and younger guys who would be the
suppliers of the food for John.
The roof of this building was also about 20 feet high. It had beams
across its width just like a barn. It was always extremely cold in the
clubhouse during the winter. So we thought a little heat might be just the
thing. We bought what is called a salamander. You have probably seen them
on construction sites. They have about an 8-gallon tub on the bottom, with
a 10-inch diameter stack 4 foot high, resting on the top of the tub. You
would fill the tub up with about 5 gallons of kerosene and start it to
burning. The thing would roar away like a jet engine and turn out some
decent heat. It would get this huge garage above 32 degrees. Even at that,
it was an improvement. The club thought that an extra dollar in dues would
cover the expense of the kerosene.
One Saturday morning Tom and I go down to the club house and decide to
start up the stove, go for breakfast until the place warmed up a little,
and then do a little work on our cars. It wasn't always an easy thing to
do, getting that contraption started. Some of the guys seemed to have a
knack for starting the thing. You needed to heat and evaporate the
kerosene to start the combustion process. They were known as the fire gods
of the hot rod club. I never developed that ability. I always had trouble.
That morning seemed to be the exception. I got the thing running, and Tom
and I jumped into his car and headed for the dinner.
About an hour later we return to the garage and enter through the door.
The whole place is full of white smoke. I don't mean a little white smoke,
I mean a lot. You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. The
salamander is puffing away with pulses of flames in the tub, and goops of
that white smoke pouring from its stack. It was the only thing you could
see inside the garage. I carefully walked over to the monster and put my
foot on the air vent on the fill cap to the tub. I quickly open and close
the vent. The thing backfires, and all of a sudden, the garage fills with
a big fireball. It goes out instantly and the air in the garage is as
clear as a bell.
Tom tells me a new fire god has been created. He tells me this is good
training in case we ever put a blower on any of our race cars. If I keep
at it, I should be ready for a little blower explosion now and then. I
notice he's looking at me kind of funny. I walk past the mirror hanging on
the wall and I stop dead in my tracks. It took about three weeks for my
eyelashes and eyebrows to grow back, along with the front of my hair.
A member named George had a 1949 Mercury in one of the spots in the
club house. He was going to build a radical car out of it. He cut out all
the roof posts on the side and front of the roof. He was going to
reinforce the roof and leave it hang out there in space. He was working on
this thing for years. I had built three dragsters and raced them and he
still wasn't anywhere near completing his project. He had the last spot in
the clubhouse, all the way in the rear. He finally drifts away, and his
car is still in the garage. We try to contact him, but we cannot find him.
What to do with that ‘49 Mercury? If we wanted to move it out of the
garage, we would need to move 10 other cars to remove his. It was decided
that we would unbolt everything and remove it in pieces. Fenders were
disappearing along with everything else we could carry, like doors and
what was left of the roof. We were down to the engine, an old Flathead
Ford. We think that maybe we should pay tribute to the marvel of Ford
engineering. Behind the building was a little back yard. We would keep it
in fair shape by mowing the grass and cleaning it up now and then.
We decide to bury Henry's invention for all time. We start digging a
hole in the ground behind the building. Finally, it's deep enough to
accept our sacrifice, that Flathead Ford. Several of us carry it to the
hole and set it in with the heads in an upright position. The key here is
we didn't just dump her in. We cover it up with the dirt, and make a sign
or tombstone that said "Here Lies a ‘49 Mercury Flathead. Born
1949, died 1967."
I once in a while drive by the old club house. It's still there,
looking just as it did 30 years ago. I often wanted to stop and see if the
sign is still there. I know no one ever removed the engine. With my luck,
I'd probably show up just as the environmental folks would be removing it.
I'll think I'll just let it rest in peace.
I look back on the stupid things we did in the old days, and just
wonder what the heck we were all thinking. If someone told me today that I
had to dig a hole to bury an engine, I'd look at them as if they were
crazy. But then again, I learned to take on things in life as a challenge
to whatever it was that needed doing. Plus I run into all of the old guys
from time to time. We tell each other these stories we've heard many
times. We still laugh a lot about the old days. If I knew I needed to form
a team to get something difficult accomplished , I would go to these folks
to accomplish it. Heck I'd even supply the steak sandwiches until the task